Snapchat pivots from privacy to publicity

It has a sexting image and a privacy problem, but can the app kill two birds with one stone?

Snapchat, the mobile phone app intended for "view once" picture messaging, has developed into an $860 million company which boasts of processing approximately 200 million images per day since its creation in 2011 by a group of Stanford University students. However, recent developments mean the Snapchat team might have to slightly alter their tactics (if they can fit it in between Winklevoss twin-style lawsuits).

Originally marketed as a method of picture communication which leaves no virtual footprint, Snapchat was promoted on the basis that "snaps" vanished once viewed. The unsurprising (and perhaps intentional) consequence is that it has been widely viewed as a mechanism for teenage "sexting". 

But whereas it was initially claimed that “snaps disappear” once opened, it turns out that all the photos taken using Snapchat are cached deep in users’ Android mobile phones: Richard Hickman, a forensic researcher, developed software that enables Snapchat images to be restored. So now, in addition to every user’s pre-existing ability to screenshot snaps (the app gives the sender a warning if that's happened, but is powerless to prevent it), it appears Snapchat images are barely more secure than any of the other tracks we leave whilst living our online lives. Given second-hand sales of mobile devices, using Snapchat under the false pretence that photos are immediately deleted could have serious consequences, as images intended to be private are handed over to unknown third parties. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Snapchat’s supposedly “deceptive business practices”. “Despite promising to its users that photos and videos sent via Snapchat will ‘disappear forever’,” the report stated, “Snapchat photos and videos remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted.” The EPIC complaint also detailed Snapchat’s FAQ page as stating, “Question: “Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired? Answer: No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.”

The Snapchat team responded to protests by attempting to retract the idea that Snapchat photos are evanescent: they released a blog post which stated, “If you've ever tried to recover lost data after accidentally deleting a drive…you might know that with the right forensic tools, it's sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So…keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your ‘selfies’." 

As a result of users’ gradual realisation that snaps are more permanent than initially thought, Snapchat appears to have modified its business strategy and pivoted from secrecy to sociability. For example, the recent modifications to the screenshot process for iOS 7 models mean that a notification is no longer sent at all when the recipient of a snap has taken a screenshot of an image, leaving senders unaware of who is keeping their images handy for a second-look. Unless Snapchat updates its coding to reverse this change, this seems to reinforce the idea that a pivot has occurred.

It appears, however, that Snapchat is not particularly concerned by this progression. Never content with being labelled the sexting app, the Snapchat team, which currently consists of just five people, two of whom are the co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, are facing the issue of Snapchat’s dwindling ability to guarantee secure photo-messaging by shifting the spotlight to SnapChat’s potential to foster friendships. Spiegel recently commented, “We allow the Snapchat community to enforce its own norms. If you want to play a mean joke, we can’t stop you. But it’s important to look at how people build and maintain friendships. They would gain nothing in friendship by saving an ugly photo and posting it.”

Through the addition of the points system (where points are gained for numbers of snaps sent) and the "Best Friends" feature (which abandons privacy altogether in allowing users to see who their friends Snapchat the most), the Snapchat team have decidedly distanced themselves from their original concept. Though undeniably Snapchat remains a form of “disposable media” when compared with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, these changes illustrate just how difficult it is to truly erase our virtual lives and how SnapChat is gradually adapting to accept that.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear